Dealing with child abuse

June 27, 2019

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

THE abduction, rape and murder of eight-year-old Zainab in Kasur in January 2018 shook the entire nation out of its complacency in such cases. But hopes of a decline in child abuse, even after the hanging of the culprit seven months later, have not been realised.

The figure of 3,445 children who were sexually abused in 2017 has often been mentioned as an annual estimate. A chilling case recently reported involved 10-year-old Farishta. It exposed, in addition to a sex fiend’s brutality, the customary cupidity of the police. This only means that protection of children against sexual abuse, even if they are not killed, must remain high on the national agenda.

The federal government responded with a bill in the National Assembly, The Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Bill, to create an agency to deal with cases of missing children. The Assembly returned the bill to the mover on grounds of its vagueness. There is now a revised version. Vagueness apart, this bill was an extremely shoddy draft. The authors had taken incredible liberties with the English language and preferred verbosity to brevity.

Take the sentence “It is essential to legislate for an institutional response at the level of such areas in the federation as are not included in any province”. It could have been replaced with ‘It is necessary to provide for an institutional response in the federal territory’.

The seriousness of the matter demands that the government take whatever help it can from CSOs.

Besides, the bill is a hodgepodge of provisions only some of which could be part of the law, while many others should be in the rules. The penalty under sections 361-A and 369 of the Penal Code has been increased with the addition of hefty amounts in fine. An annexure lists 49 bits of information about the missing child to be gathered by the organisation. The table would have a better place in the rules because placing it within the law precludes the collection of information not included in it. It should have been put in the rules with the addition of a line ‘And any other information that may be considered necessary’.

Besides, opinion is divided on whether the bill and the agency to be created under it should be named after a victim, because it involves perpetuating the memory of one among the many equally wronged children.

The proposed law and the agency created under it are to be administered by the ‘National Commission on the Rights of the Child’. Where is this commission? If the reference is to the cell in the secretariat of the Wafaqi Mohtasib, that cell, despite the presence of a few dedicated persons, does not have the human and financial resources the task requires.

The seriousness of the matter demands that the government take whatever help it can from civil society organisations. While some of them are monitoring incidents of children’s abduction, rape and murder, we need more investigative studies such as Accountability for Rape: A Case Study of Lodhran, carried out by the University College, Lahore.

Statistics attached to the study show that the police submitted reports on 7,120 rape cases under Section 376 of the Penal Code in Punjab during 2016 and 2017. The number of cases decided was 5,814 and the number of convictions a mere 216 (3.7 per cent only). The districts that reported the highest number of rape incidents (and a poor conviction rate) are: Lahore, where 191 cases out of 418 were decided with three convictions; Rahim Yar Khan, 393 cases, with 370 decided and eight convictions; Bahawalpur, 355 cases with 286 decided and eight convictions; Khanewal, 355 cases, with 243 decided and nine convictions; Lodhran, 310 cases, with 252 decided and 16 convictions; and Faisalabad, 305 cases, with 330* decided and 14 convictions.

The districts reporting the lowest incidence are: Jhelum, 19 cases, with 32* decided and one conviction; Mianwali, 23 cases, with 27* decided and two convictions; Attock, 23 cases, with 36* decided and three convictions; Chakwal, 36 cases, with 34 decided and two convictions; Khushab, 39 cases, with 45* decided and one conviction; and Narowal, 44 cases with 46* decided and six convictions.

[ * The cases decided included some filed earlier than 2016. The total number decided over the two years was 9,154, while there were 7,120 new cases. The victims include small girls and older women, but that doesn’t matter while determining the course of the law.]

Let the experts determine the causes of variation in cases of rape in the Punjab districts. What can be noted at first sight is that the incidence of rape cases could be proportional to the degree of development in a district.

The study offers plenty of food for thought to lawmakers, police and prosecutors regarding the failure to punish rapists. It finds that in 85pc of acquittals the reason was the resiling of witnesses. After a brief review of laws applicable to rape cases, the study points out the causes of the poor conviction rate: a rape case takes on average 560 days to decide as against the stipulated period of 90 days; delayed filing of FIRs; delays in medical examination; inconsistencies in the victim’s statements; conduct of witnesses (relatives and strangers); questionable methods of medical tests; violence; cases of married women; and variations in the age of a minor. Many recommendations have been made and merit serious consideration.

New research should also cover the social factors that contribute to abduction and rape. For instance, what can be done to reduce the population of street children? Will compulsory schooling help? Can improved housing for the poor prevent them from telling their little ones to spend the day in the streets?

A key finding in most rape studies is that children are unusually vulnerable at schools and madressahs and many of the culprits are members of victims’ families or known to them. Stricter control of educational centres and essential sex education for children and their mothers are fundamental to strategies to protect the nation’s precious children from the most horrible cycle of abduction, rape and murder.

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2019